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Cape Cod Online
By CYNTHIA MCCORMICK, STAFF WRITER
Posted May 9 2004
HARWICH – Four years after the suicide of her 27-year-old son, Barbara Felton is still angry.
She’s angry at her son, Mark Christopher Felton, for ending his life and scarring hers. But mostly she’s furious with her son’s friend for leaving an unlocked shotgun where her son could find it and use it during a moment of despondency.
“I told my counselor, ‘I like being angry,'” Felton said. It not only feels good, the elementary-school computer teacher says, it’s helping her do good.
Felton is among a group of Cape women who are converging on Washington, D.C., today for another Million Mom March to protest gun violence in America.
“This is what I feel I can do,” Felton said during an interview at her house in Harwich. She promised during her son’s eulogy in May 2000 that she would march in the new gun protest known as the Million Mom March.
The first march, held on Mother’s Day 2000, came too soon after Mark’s death for Felton to participate. The second march, occurring today, calls on Congress to renew a ban on assault weapons. The existing ban expires Sept. 13.
The march, also known as “The Mother’s Day March to Halt the Assault,” aims to require background checks on all gun purchases and to incorporate safety standards into gun design, among other things.
Many stories of personal tragedy coming from march participants focus on victims of other people’s gun violence or accidental shootings.
According to a fact sheet prepared by the organization, on average a person is killed by a gun every 18 minutes in America, giving the United States the highest rate of deaths from gunfire in the industrialized world.
The fact sheet also includes suicide statistics: It says that 1,273 children or teens have committed suicide with a firearm each year over the last 10 years. Each year more than 145 gun-related suicide victims were younger than 15.
An impulse became reality
What bothers Felton and other marchers is how quickly a suicidal idea can turn into reality if a gun is handy.
The afternoon that Mark committed suicide, he had just found out that a co-worker to whom he felt romantically attached was moving back in with an old boyfriend. He apparently took this move as a rejection, Felton said, and was thrown into despair.
After leaving his job at a Barnstable elementary school, where he was an aide for a student with special needs, Mark went to the apartment of a friend with whom he’d gone target shooting in the past.
According to Felton, the friend wasn’t home, but the apartment was unlocked and guns, including a shotgun, were “laying around.”
Felton’s voice fills with fury when she talks about the guns.
“I don’t believe this suicide was planned. I believe it was spur of the moment,” she said. “I will never get over my anger at this negligent S.O.B. who left the apartment open with the guns available for anyone to get them.”
In fact, Felton encouraged the district attorney’s office to prosecute Mark’s friend under a relatively new law that criminalizes unlawful storage of weapons. As a result, the friend was ordered to perform community service in a clinic for head injury patients. The case was continued without a finding, which means that if the young man did not commit another crime the case would be closed after a year.
In many ways, the prosecution helped Felton deal with her own despair.
But Felton said she will never forget the 3 a.m. phone call to her house in Orleans, where she was living at that time with Mark. A voice said, “There are two policemen at your front door. Would you let them in?”
She stumbled to the door and was told, “‘Mrs. Felton, I’m sorry to inform you that your son Mark is dead.’ I came right out with, ‘Oh, he’s in the emergency room? I’ll be right there.’ They said, ‘No. He’s shot himself.’ It was hell. It was absolute hell.”
Mark’s younger brother, Stephen, now 27, was deeply hurt by his brother’s suicide.
Felton said she forgives Mark. “I don’t believe this suicide was planned,” she said, pointing out that the week before he died he bought two kayaks, one for himself and one for a long-term girlfriend.
A troubled mind
But Mark also suffered from clinical depression and his dose of Paxil, a medication used to treat depression, had been increased right before his suicide, Felton said.
Looking back, it seems Mark struggled long before being diagnosed. His high school years were lackluster academically. While he loved Dean Junior College, the two-year Franklin college where he discovered sports broadcasting, he left the University of Utah without earning a four-year degree.
Moving back home with his mother, he discovered a niche in education and child care. He was a camp counselor and a special education assistant for a child with Down syndrome.
“People liked Mark,” Felton said.
He didn’t always like himself. After Mark’s death, Felton found out from his girlfriend and a colleague that Mark had attempted suicide at least once before, by trying to suffocate himself while running a car engine. When that hadn’t worked, he’d swallowed a bunch of over-the-counter medicines, only to throw up.
Changes in law, attitudes
Felton said she wishes she’d known about the earlier attempt. And she believes that if the guns had not been available in his friend’s apartment, Mark might have taken the time to think or seek out people for help.
“Death by a gun is instantaneous. There is no time to reconsider,” she wrote in speech she delivered at an anti-violence rally in Dorchester last spring.
And many times guns are just too available, gun-control advocates say.
“Guns are not handled properly. They are not stored,” said Shirley Lamson of Sandwich, who founded the Cape Cod Chapter of the Million Mom March four years ago. “They can have safety locks on them. Many don’t.”
At the same time, gun-control opponents counter that guns don’t kill people. It’s the people using the guns, on others or themselves, that inflict injury and death.
James Wallace of the Gun Owners Action League in Northboro, an affiliate of the National Rifle Association, said his organization promotes gun safety. But unlike the Million Mom Marchers, they don’t want to legislate it.
“We actually support safety locks. We teach safe storage all the time here. We just don’t want it mandated by the government,” he said. “If you’re an adult, you can act like an adult.”
Massachusetts law already requires guns to have safety locks or to be stored in a locked cabinet.
Craig Nickerson, an attorney in private practice who helped prosecute Mark’s friend when he worked for the district attorney, said now he’s on the other side of the court, defending people prosecuted for unsafe storage. For instance, he said, if someone reports a gun stolen and the police find there was no trigger lock on the gun, the owner can be prosecuted under state law.
Despite changes in the law and public attitudes, today’s march participants say they feel they’re on a mission.
Lamson knows of five women from Cape Cod who are going to the march and estimates that at least 60 people will represent the state chapter of the Million Mom March, which merged with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence three years ago.
Some of the participants will ride to Washington, D.C., on a bus that is being called the “Fidalgo-Felton” bus after Mark Felton and Jorge Fidalgo, a popular Roxbury shopkeeper who was shot to death during a holdup.
Lamson said she doesn’t expect the same turnout as the first march in 2000, when an estimated 750,000 people gathered on the National Mall. The 2000 march took place a year after the student shootings in Littleton, Colo., galvanized the nation. Since then there have been other school shootings, but after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the nation has focused on combating terrorism, the war in Iraq and economic woes.
Felton said she was flying to D.C. with Lamson. She plans to be on the National Mall today, wearing a backpack and carrying a sign with a photo of Mark’s grave, inscribed with the words “died by shotgun.”
“Until Mark died, I guess I was naive,” Felton has written. “I knew people own hunting rifles but never realized that so many people own handguns and powerful shotguns whose bullets do such terrible things to so many innocent victims.”
(Published: May 9, 2004)